Failure is Not an Option

Close Up Of Documents And Laptop With Meeting In Background

“One of the most common causes of failure is the habit of quitting when one is overtaken by temporary defeat”
Napoleon Hill – Think & Grow Rich

The rumors are true. The fear is reality. Walmart is moving into town. “What do I do now? I will lose everything.”

“I have owned my business for three years and I am only making $2.34 an hour.”

“Yes, I take $700,000 year cash from my business, but I work 80 hours per week and don’t know my seven-year-old daughter.”

“My customers have stopped spending money because of this recession. I don’t know how to make my mortgage.”

“I have been awarded the government contract, but there is no funding for that contract.”


These are only five problems heard from more than 13,000 business owners over nearly a 20-year career. From the downtown merchant in Oneonta, NY facing the problem of a new Walmart to the government contractor near College Park, MD, CEOs of small business experience problems, some big, some small, every day.

Do you make this statement frequently?

“Houston, we have a problem.” Jim Lovell, Astronaut Apollo 13 – April 1970

The true story of Apollo 13 was told in Jim Lovell’s book, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 (1994) then retold in Ron Howard’s movie Apollo 13 (1995) starring Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell.

What was Apollo 13’s final destination? What happened on Apollo 13?
How does Apollo 13 relate to my business?

If you answered “the moon” to the first question (“What was their final destination?”), you are half correct. The final destination was actually earth. Remember President

Kennedy’s goal: “to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth.” What happened on the way to the halfway point? There was an explosion.

In addition to monitoring mechanical issues by those in Houston, they were also watching the health of the astronauts.

Why was the health of the astronauts important? If they arrived back on earth dead, they would not have fulfilled President Kennedy’s goal. They noticed that the astronauts’ oxygen level was low. They asked a very important question:

Why? They determined there was too much carbon dioxide in their blood system. They asked a very important question:

Why? They determined there was too much carbon dioxide in the air. They asked a very important question:

Why? They determined that the filtration system was not working correctly. They asked a very important question:

Why? They determined that they had the wrong filters.
From those “Why” questions, they determined the true root cause of the problem.

YouTube: Apollo 13 (7/11) Movie CLIP – Square Peg in a Round Hole From the movie:

Engineer: “Gene, we have a situation brewing with the carbon dioxide. We have a CO2 filter problem on the lunar module. Five filters on the LEM, which was meant for two guys for a day and a half. So I told the doc…”

Flight Surgeon: “They’re already up to eight on the gauges. Anything over 15, you get impaired judgment, blackouts, the beginning of brain asphyxia.”

Flight Operations Commander Gene Krantz: “What about the scrubbers on the command module?”

Engineer: “They have square cartridges. The ones on the LEM are round.” Krantz: “Tell me this isn’t a government operation.”

Engineer: “It just isn’t a contingency we’ve remotely looked at. Those CO2 levels are going to be getting toxic.

Krantz: “Well, I suggest you gentlemen invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole. Rapidly.”

The engineers dumped assorted odd items onto a table, anything on the spacecraft that the astronauts had available to them.

Engineer: “Ok people, listen up. The people upstairs handed us this one. We got to come through. We’ve gotta find a way to make this [holds up a square object] fit into the hole for this [holds up a round object] using nothing but that [points to the items on the table]. Let’s get it organized. Let’s build a filter. Better get some coffee going.”

The Apollo 13 mission — in which the original goal changed into a new even more challenging goal achieved — is evidence that thinking to win works.

Technology alone did not bring the astronauts home safely. The complete focus on the ultimate destination (bringing the astronauts home safely) made the key difference. Flight operations commander Gene Krantz stated shortly after the explosion,

“Failure is not an option!”

Was everyone upset when a routine “stirring” of oxygen tanks, a “housekeeping procedure,” created a mysterious explosion that crippled the ship, sending it into a countdown towards 100% failure resulting in no moon landing? Yes.

Gene continued to focus on the ultimate destination, “NASA has never lost an astronaut in space and we’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch.”

Gene’s boss whines, “This could be the worst disaster NASA ever experienced.” Gene confidently replies, “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”

Gene Krantz changed the game to win; he did not allow the situation to dictate the outcome.

He did not allow himself or others to think of anything that was not going to enable them to win.

Years before the flight, the voltage levels on all the Apollo spaceships had been changed; however, one of the subcontractors responsible for firing thermostats was never informed. Complaining about those subcontractors, focusing on missed opportunities, concentrating on obstacles not in their control, and hoping for resources that are not readily available are all temptations that could lead to failure, not winning.

Gene and his team constantly transformed their resources and procedures into new resources and new procedures to covert real opportunities and address controllable obstacles. Constantly, opening their minds to think of ways to drive beyond the recognized limits and discover new capabilities.

Gene said, “I don’t care what something was designed to do. I care what it can do.”

For those of us that grew up in the 1980s, this is called MacGyver style. Where duct tape, chewing gum, Swiss Army knife and mind power can save an entire city from a nuclear disaster.

When situations change, you got to change with them, using all the thinking power and tools on hand.

Back to the question: “How does Apollo 13 relate to your business?” Do you think and say as Gene did? “Work the problem, people!”

Do you know the root problem that is keeping you from growing quickly? Or, is your focus on symptoms?

Do you think on only opportunities that you can convert and obstacles that you can control now? Or, are you focused on what is unattainable or out of your control?

It is a new game. The economy has changed everything. CEOs have to think and find their game changer, the one thing that will make them grow.

In truth, business has not changed in 2,000 years. Business is all about human relations and the reality that eventually revenue must exceed expenses.

The only change in the thousands of years is that the world is moving faster. If you want to grow, you must accelerate your thinking to solve problems. Strategic thinking can and must be learned.

Years after the Apollo 13 incident, Gene Krantz was quoted as saying, “The training was such that by the time you finished the process, you had the confidence that, given a few minutes, you could solve any problem. That’s all there was to it. And it didn’t matter what the size, but the magnitude, what the origin of the problem was. The fact was that you could solve any problem that came up.”

Find the “time and space” to focus on the most pressing priorities.

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